It’s a scene that plays out over and over again: A Tram lands on the Island and, slowly, small groups of riders separate from the flow of residents and workers to look around, consult a map, and then wander over to the small white building with a lit Open sign. They come in for directions, or advice, or a bit of history. Some come in asking where to grab a bite to eat and then stay to peruse shelves stocked with Island-themed toys, accessories, and housewares. They’ve even been known to come in asking how to make their visit more permanent by renting or buying on the Island.
“We have 55,000 visitors a year,” says Judy Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society (RIHS), which runs the Visitor Center Kiosk. “You’ll never have an uninterrupted conversation here.” And that’s exactly how she likes it.
On July 29, the Visitor Center Kiosk will celebrate its tenth anniversary as the Island’s unofficial concierge.
A Piece of History
The fact that the Visitor Center Kiosk sits on Roosevelt Island at all is a marvel of luck and determination.
The structure is one of five kiosks that once stood at the Manhattan side of the Queensboro Bridge and served as entrances to the former trolley car station. Passengers could ride the trolley across the bridge and get off at an elevator that then carried them down to Roosevelt Island. When the old trolley station was demolished in the 1970s, one of the kiosks was relocated to Brooklyn.
That might very well have been the end of the story, except that on a Saturday in 2003, Berdy happened to read an article in The New York Times about the upcoming renovation of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. It mentioned that the museum no longer wanted the structure they had been using as an entrance. That structure just happened to be the relocated kiosk.
“I said to my friend, ‘That looks interesting,’” recalls Berdy. “I went on Sunday to look at it, and on Monday I called and said ‘We’ll take it!’” Two years later, it was loaded onto a flatbed truck in the middle of the night and carefully driven through the backstreets of Brooklyn and Queens to its new home on Roosevelt Island. A year later the building was placed on a new foundation and officially opened on July 29, 2007.
“It was ghastly hot,” says Berdy fondly. “We had tied the whole building in a red ribbon.”
Berdy, it seems, has a knack for digging up old relics. Three years ago, she also managed to acquire one of the original lamp post bases that once stood by the kiosks in Manhattan. A friend tipped her off that he’d spotted it in a storage yard off Northern Boulevard in Queens. Berdy immediately went to investigate. “It was just sitting in the weeds, in the snow, by the Long Island Railroad tracks.” Made of white bronze and weighing some 3,000 pounds, the ornately decorated base now also resides on the Island in front of the Kiosk.
A Friendly Face
Berdy says the Kiosk staff spend most of their time on directions – to Four Freedoms Park, to restaurants, to the art galleries, and of course to the bathrooms. “Lately we get a lot of questions about Cornell Tech.” If visitors can’t walk all the way down to the FDR memorial, Kiosk staff will call the park to come pick them up in the golf cart.
“To me the important thing is that my staff is here. They stand and talk to people. They offer them maps. It’s a friendly face.” As if on cue, a couple from Georgia comes in asking if there’s a place to get out of the sweltering heat and have a cold drink. Berdy points them towards the Riverwalk Bar and Grill. A moment later, a couple of women come in hesitantly asking for information. Berdy smoothly transitions into Spanish to explain what’s around.
Next, it’s a group of unhappy Russian teenagers wilting in the summer heat. “We don’t have summers like this in Russia,” explains a woman.
“It’s a bit like ‘Guess the Country’,” jokes Berdy.
Not Just for Visitors
Over the years, says Berdy, the Visitor Center has become much more than just a place to get tourist information. It’s also a store specializing in Roosevelt Island-themed gifts, memorabilia, and accessories – many of which can’t be found anywhere else.
Inside the Kiosk, shelves are lined with toys, books, and one-of-a-kind gifts
RIHS works with a company in Vermont to create wooden toys and puzzles featuring iconic Island images. Christmas ornaments are in the works, as well as a ferry boat, says Berdy. “All the stuff is made in Vermont. Your kids can chew it; there’s nothing toxic in it.”
Berdy hopes Islanders will think of it as their store too. “You know, just because it says Visitors Center doesn’t mean residents can’t come in. You can do your holiday and family shopping. Send guests home with a memento. If you’re having a party for kids, come by. If you need large quantities of something we have, come in and we can always arrange something for you. We have kids’ books, a map book, books on parks and landmarks. There’s more than just the tourist stuff.”
The Visitor Center Kiosk is open from 12:00-5:00 p.m. every day except Tuesdays in the summer months.